A Second in Azed!

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords, Uncategorized with tags , on June 26, 2022 by telescoper

I was more than a little surprised this morning to find that I had won Second Prize in the latest Azed Crossword Competition in the Observer newspaper. This only the third time I’ve been among the medals (so to speak); I got a First Prize last year and a Third Prize exactly 11 years ago today.

As I’ve mentioned before, the monthly Azed Competition puzzle involves not only solving the Azed crossword but also supplying a cryptic clue for a word or phrase given only as a definition in the crossword. This competition is tough, partly because Azed is a stickler for syntactical soundness in submitted clues, and partly because many of the competitors are professional crossword setters. I’ve struggled recently to find the time and the energy to make a decent attempt at the Azed competition, but this competition puzzle was published on the last Bank Holiday Weekend so I had more time than usual to think about it. The target word was PEANUTS and my clue was

Source of allergic upset gripping one’s interior? Possibly!

Usually in a cryptic crossword clue one part of the clue provides a definition of the answer and the other a cryptic allusion to it; the solver has to identify each part. This clue is of a slightly different type called “&lit” which means that two different readings of the clue give you the definition and the cryptic allusion. The cryptic reading gives A (source of Allergic) in an anagram of UPSET containing N (oNe’s interior) indicated by the word “possibly”. UPSET is often used as a anagram indicator but not in this case. The surface reading of the clue also suggests PEANUTS.

P.S. I think the First Prize clue was very good indeed so congratulations to K. Bolton!


On the Relativity of Time

Posted in The Universe and Stuff on June 25, 2022 by telescoper

I feel seen…

(HT to Stephen Curry for implicating me in this..)

Last Open Day

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , on June 25, 2022 by telescoper
Ready to go

So here I am, then, back at home. I’m not at Dublin Pride because I had to attend an Open Day at Maynooth University. It was a lot quieter than the last one I did, in April, but a reasonable number attended. The weather forecast was rather dire but it turned out to be not bad at all, if a bit breezy. Hopefully that means there was good weather for Pride too.

I’m told there were 1000 registrations as opposed to the 5000 a couple of months ago. This one is usually a bit quieter because students have basically finished making their choices by now. A show of hands in the audience in my talk suggested the vast majority were actually 5th year students, so not planning to go to University this September.

Anyway, that completes the cycle of open days for this academic year. Since I’m stepping down as Head of Department when my term ends at the end of August, this will be the last of these I shall be responsible for. I hope.

Big thanks to Dale who helped out a lot today, setting up and dismantling the stand, and to him and the others who have helped over the year.

Another Late Start to the Academic Year

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , on June 24, 2022 by telescoper

Following on from Monday’s post about uncertainty relating to the start of next academic year, it has now been announced that this summer’s Leaving Certificate results will not be released to students until Friday 2nd September and CAO offers will be made on 8th September.

The timeline for admissions at Ireland’s third level institutions will therefore be roughly the same as last year. Although nothing has been officially announced from Maynooth yet, it seems likely that lectures for first-year students will have to commence a week later than returners just as happened last year.

This is not ideal but at least we have some basis on which to start planning. The start of the current academic year was a bit chaotic to say the least but if this year is a repeat of last at least we have some experience on what worked and what didn’t to guide us. And at least I have something reasonably concrete to say at tomorrow’s Open Day.

From the point of teaching, therefore, things are probably going to be a bit less bad than last year, at least in Maynooth. Some universities were due to start teaching on 5th September so they face a delay of 2-3 weeks.

That doesn’t mean however that things will be better for the students. They will have to wait until September until they know which course they will be on, which will cause considerable stress. On a more practical level it means that that new students will have very little time to find accommodation which is in any case in very short supply.

Now that we know the dates we will make the best plans we can for teaching, but for accommodation there doesn’t seem to be any plan at all. A crisis is looming.

Royal Society SFI University Research Fellowships

Posted in Uncategorized on June 23, 2022 by telescoper

It is now time for a quick public information broadcast, to give advanced notice of an important scheme run jointly between the  Royal Society and Science Foundation Ireland that gives early career researchers in Ireland access to University Research Fellowships. I thought I’d mention it now before the summer vacations (which apparently some people have):

This scheme provides eight years of research funding (with the possibility of renewal) and has proved to be a stepping stone to their first permanent academic position for a great many scientists. Here are a couple of items about the eligibility and duration.

Eligibility:  The scheme is open to early career Post Doctoral Researchers with between 3-8 years of actual research experience since their PhD (date on which the degree was approved by board of graduate studies) by the closing date.  You cannot apply if you hold a permanent post in the university or have held (or currently hold) an equivalent fellowship that provides the opportunity to establish independence.

Funding and Duration:  In previous years this scheme provided funding of the research fellow’s salary and research expenses for an initial period of 5 years with the possibility to apply for a further 3 years.  This time, though, applicants are asked to provide a proposal for a project lasting eight years which is subject to a mid-term review.

Key Dates: The scheme opens on 12th July 2022 and applications need to be in by 6th September 2022 at 3pm UK time. Last year the application deadline for Irish institutions was a bit later than for the UK but I don’t know if that will be the case this year as the call has not yet opened.

For further details and further developments see here.

The scheme covers a wide range of disciplines. including physics and astronomy. Of course if you want to do cosmology, the best place  to do it in Ireland is here in Maynooth but we also do, e.g. condensed matter theory and particle physics.

The deadline is not far off,  so please get cracking!

P.S. Five years residency in Ireland qualifies you for Irish citizenship. Just saying…

The Pagan University Year

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , on June 22, 2022 by telescoper

This morning we had the usual end-of-year meeting of the University Examination Board. It’s been a difficult year so it was a longer meeting than usual but it went reasonably smoothly. Marks will be released to students either tomorrow or Friday. That basically concludes the formal business for the academic year.

The proximity of this important event to yesterday’s Summer Solstice got me thinking again about the academic year and how it relates to the old pagan calendar.

In the Northern hemisphere, from an astronomical point of view, the solar year is defined by the two solstices (summer, around June 21st, and winter, around December 21st) and the equinoxes (spring, around March 21st, and Autumn, around September 21st). These four events divide the year into four roughly equal parts each of about 13 weeks.

Now, if you divide each of these intervals in two you divide the year into eight pieces of six and a bit weeks each. The dates midway between the astronomical events mentioned above are (roughly) :

  • 1st February: Imbolc (Candlemas)
  • 1st May: Beltane (Mayday)
  • 1st August: Lughnasadh (Lammas)
  • 1st November: Samhain (All Saints Day)

The names I’ve added are taken from the Celtic/neo-Pagan (and Christian terms) for these cross-quarter days. These timings are rough because the dates of the equinoxes and solstices vary from year to year. Imbolc is often taken to be the 2nd of February (Groundhog Day) and Samhain is sometimes taken to be October 31st, Halloween. But hopefully you get the point.

Incidentally, the last three of these also coincide closely with traditional Bank Holidays in Ireland, though these are always on Mondays so often happen a few days away. The first has not been a holiday but from next year there will be a new Bank Holiday that occurs on or near 1st February, which completes the set of cross-quarter-day holidays.

Anyway, it is interesting (to me) to note the extent that the academic year here in Ireland is defined by these dates.

Usually the first semester of the academic year starts on or around September 21st (Autumnal Equinox) and finishes on or Around December 21st (Winter Solstice). Half term (study week) thus includes the Halloween Bank Holiday (Samhain).

After a break for Christmas and a three-week mid-year exam period Semester Two starts on or around 1st February (Imbolc). Half-term is then around March 21st (Vernal Equinox, which roughly coincides with St Patrick’s Day March 17th) and teaching ends around May 1st (Imbolc). More exams and end of year business take us to the Summer Solstice and the (hypothetical) vacation. Most of us get to take the 1st August holiday (Lughnasadh) off at least!

So we’re basically operating on a pagan calendar.

Schrödinger’s Theatre

Posted in Education, History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on June 21, 2022 by telescoper

Although it’s relatively old news in Ireland, a colleague recently sent me a story from Physics World about Trinity College Dublin’s decision to change the name of its Schrödinger Lecture Theatre (to the Physics Lecture Theatre). The Provost, Fellows, Foundation Scholars and the other members of Board, of the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin (to give it its proper title) took this decision in the light of revelations about Erwin Schrödinger‘s predatory sexual conduct towards very young girls.

According to my careful research carried out by reading his Wikipedia page, Schrödinger never actually worked at Trinity College Dublin; the Theatre in question was named in his honour after he delivered his famous lectures on What is Life there in 1943.

Reactions to the decision to rename the Theatre have generated a wide range of reactions from physicists and non-physicists alike. For my part I think it is the right decision. As the Physics World article states:

As an educational institute, we cannot condone or glorify someone who abused the trust between teacher and student.

Jonathan Coleman, Head of School Physics TCD

To me this is quite different from attaching Schrödinger’s name to his equation or even his cat. His unsavoury conduct should not mean that his scientific achievements should be “cancelled” . These are and should continue to be recognized through terms like Schrödinger’s Equation. As far as I am aware, however, Schrödinger did not build any lecture theatres.

It’s up to Trinity to decide what to call its rooms, of course, but that doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to have opinions about the decision. I’d therefore invite you to express yours through the following poll:

Of course if you wish to expand on your opinion you may do so through the box below.

Summer Solstice 2022

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff on June 21, 2022 by telescoper

The Summer Solstice in the Northern hemisphere takes place today, Tuesday 21st June 2022, at 10.14am Irish Time (9.14 UTC). Among other things, this means that tomorrow is the longest day of the year around these parts. According to this website, the interval between sunrise and sunset in Dublin today will be 17 hours 5 minutes and 6 seconds. which is 2 seconds longer than yesterday while tomorrow will be four whole seconds shorter than that.

It’s all downhill from now on.

Days will get shorter from tomorrow until the Winter Solstice in December, although this does not mean that sunset will necessarily happen earlier on 22nd than it does tomorrow. In fact it is a little later. Nor does it mean that sunrise will happen later tomorrow; in fact it is a little earlier.

You can find such things out by looking at a table of the local mean times of sunrise and sunset for Dublin around the 2022 summer solstice. This shows that the earliest sunrise was actually on 17th June and the latest sunset is on 25th.

This arises because there is a difference between mean solar time (measured by clocks) and apparent solar time (defined by the position of the Sun in the sky), so that a solar day does not always last exactly 24 hours. A description of apparent and mean time was given by Nevil Maskelyne in the Nautical Almanac for 1767:

Apparent Time is that deduced immediately from the Sun, whether from the Observation of his passing the Meridian, or from his observed Rising or Setting. This Time is different from that shewn by Clocks and Watches well regulated at Land, which is called equated or mean Time.

The discrepancy between mean time and apparent time arises because of the Earth’s axial tilt and the fact that it travels around the Sun in an elliptical orbit in which its orbital speed varies with time of year (being faster at perihelion than at aphelion).

If you plot the position of the Sun in the sky at a fixed time each day from a fixed location on the Earth you get a thing called an analemma, which is a sort of figure-of-eight curve whose shape depends on the observer’s latitude. Here’s a photographic version taken in Edmonton, with photographs of the Sun’s position taken from the same position at the same time on different days over the course of a year:


The summer solstice is the uppermost point on this curve and the winter solstice is at the bottom. The north–south component of the analemma is the Sun’s declination, and the east–west component is the so-called equation of time which quantifies the difference between mean solar time and apparent solar time. This curve can be used to calculate the earliest and/or latest sunrise and/or sunset.

Timeline for Admissions

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on June 20, 2022 by telescoper

As the current academic year comes to a close – this week sees the final Exam Board at Maynooth University – thoughts turn with some apprehension to the start of the next.

The Leaving Certificate Examinations are taking place now and will finish on 28th June, more-or-less in line with pre-pandemic times, but the results will come out later. Normally these would be released in mid-August, so the university admissions process run by CAO would start then, giving a whole month before the start of teaching term at third-level institutions.

Last year, however, the results were not released until 3rd September 2021, which made it impossible for new students to start their courses at the scheduled time. At Maynooth, for example, first-years started a week later than returning students and missed the usual orientation week. More importantly for the students, there was a last-minute scramble for accommodation that made it impossible for many students to live anywhere near campus.

Until recently I was assuming that this year would be at least as bad as last. Although the examinations have returned to the traditional format this year, the Leaving Certificate results will be delayed again, for two (connected) reasons. One is that the Minister for Education decided that this year’s results would not be lower than last year so some scaling may be necessary and the other is that it is anticipated that more students will make use of the later alternative sittings provided for those unable to take the regular sitting owing to, e.g. ill health. These are connected because if a large number of students avail of the second setting then the scaling business will have to wait until their marks have been processed.

We know that the results will be late, but we don’t know how late they will be which is a major headache. Autumn Term in Maynooth is scheduled to start on 19th September, for returning students, but at the moment we don’t know when first years will start.

Today however there is an indication that results will probably be released in ‘late August’. If that turns out to be the case then the start of next academic year will probably turn out to be no less chaotic than this year was from at least from the point of view of teaching. I’d be relieved at any outcome that is not worse than last year. It’s even possible that teaching in Maynooth can start on 19th September for all students, though I don’t think I would bet on it. Things will be even be trickier at other institutions whose teaching term starts earlier in September.

That still leaves the problem of student accommodation, though. Here I don’t think the timeline for admissions will help much in averting an entirely predictable crisis. Once we know the dates we will make the best plans we can for teaching, but for accommodation there doesn’t seem to be any plan at all.

Eightsome Reels Again

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , on June 19, 2022 by telescoper

I haven’t blogged about crosswords for a while so I thought I’d mention this week’s Azed puzzle (No. 2610) which is of ‘Eightsome Reels’ type, as explained in the picture above. I mentioned a similar one years and years ago (Azed No. 1921) so I thought I’d make a few comments on this one. I won’t give the full solution though because that would spoil the competition but I will give a hint or two.

The solutions are obviously all 8 letters long and they have to be fitted in the squares surrounding the corresponding number. The trouble is that you’re not told which square to start from, or whether the letters are to be entered clockwise or anticlockwise.

The only way I know to start one of these puzzles is to solve several adjacent clues without entering them in the diagram and then see if I can find a way to fit them together on a bit of scrap paper. The structure of the diagram guarantees many checked letters (i.e. overlaps) between neighbouring answers so once you have a few then the subsequent ones get easier to fit in. These puzzles are usually difficult to start though.

In this particular case I managed to solve about half the clues before entering anything on the grid. But how to write them in so they fit together?

For me the solution was to get the three answers in the corner at the bottom right corner (35, 36 and 30). I think 35 is a nice clue:

35. Erica, breaking rule? – ‘a thing of shreds and patches’

Think American novelist following by an anagram; the reference to Gilbert & Sullivan gives you JONGLEUR (a wandering minstrel). The following clue is the easiest of the lot

36. How corpse ends in morgue’s awfully … so?

This is clearly GRUESOME (end of corpse, i.e. E in anagram of MORGUES).

Now you see that EUR and RUE are common to the two answers so they must fit in the three lights running vertically upwards between 35 and 36 and the two words must be ordered differently so that one is clockwise and the other anti-clockwise. If you write RUE upwards here (so GRUESOME is clockwise), then the three letters in the corner will be MEG. If on the other hand you write them downwards (so GRUESOME is anticlockwise) then the three letters in the corner are SOM. The rubric states that the unchecked letters in the corners can be arranged to form LESS FINE POEM which does not contain a G. Thus the first possibility is excluded. The answer to 36 must therefore be written anticlockwise and the answer to 35 clockwise to mesh with it.

To check this is right you can solve 30, the answer to which has three letters in common with GRUESOME and must be written clockwise.

The symmetry having thus been broken, all you have to do is solve the other clues and fit them in accordingly…